I was very lucky once to be able to see Michael Kaiser speak at an organization I worked for. Kaiser is known as a turnaround master in the arts world. Kaiser has written several books outlining the broad principles by which he brought several arts organizations from the brink of collapse to the apex of success. These principles are distilled in what Kaiser calls “The Cycle.”
The Cycle is brilliant in that it is both simple and impactful. The Cycle is broken down into a few steps:
- Produce Great Art
- Aggressive Marketing (Institutional Marketing)
- Build the Organization’s Family
- Build a Donor Base and Receive Funding
- Reinvest that Funding into Creating Great Art (Cycle Begins Again)
I always found steps one and five to be critical. It takes boldness to risk the production of great art in the face of budget cuts, an insecure economy, and rising production costs. And once you have pulled yourself forward and grown the family, it’s tempting to become conservative with resources. But each iteration of The Cycle casts a wider net, and the family grows larger, and the organization benefits from the generosity of people in the family. And the marketing component can’t be left out, either: unless your institution markets itself on every level, folks won’t know who you are or why they should be part of your family.
It may sound very negative, but when I worked at an art museum, we started out at the very nadir of The Cycle. We used to say, “if our organization disappeared tomorrow, who would miss us?” It’s a question that put a lot of things into perspective. In those early days, the answer was “not many.” But following The Cycle in our own way and in our own community, we were able to build up an audience of thousands of people, and we transcended the tiny town we were located in through online engagement and programs that drew from all over the region.
What does this mean for libraries? It’s easy to write off The Cycle as a bad fit because public libraries receive their funding from the government’s tax revenues. But it’s important to recognize that libraries tend to rely (out of necessity) on their friends groups and private donations, and yes, sometimes on corporate sponsorship of programs.
To me, it looks like libraries are ripe proving grounds for The Cycle. We have a host of talented people in libraries creating vital, dynamic, creative programs for our communities. This is our great art. We have some very staunch supporters in our communities, and it’s not a stretch at all to say that a family model fits our organizations like a glove. And of course, the resources provided by friends groups is always reinvested in the library and its programs.
But are we really doing everything we can to grow the library as an organization? Can we really say that our libraries work cohesively (yes, even across departments and branches) to market the library at every level? And are we really devoting our focus to the construction of new and fruitful partnerships that truly grow the family?
The notion of the library community as part of the library’s family is critical for libraries today. Without the long-standing ties in the entire community (not just the “regulars” who show up for our programs, or our volunteers, but a number approaching everybody) libraries will suffer more cuts for a lack of strong community advocacy. In fact, advocacy is something that could be fairly cleanly appended to step five in The Cycle: reinvest in the great art of the organization. When that reinvestment happens, magic can happen at the library.
If you’re interested in learning more, I would strongly recommend you read Kaiser’s book, The Cycle: A Practical Approach to Managing Arts Organizations, and watch the above video. Thoughts? Ideas? Leave a comment below!